If you tend to believe academics are better informed and thus more compassionate about the world around us, think again. A case involving a faculty member of the Mathematics and Statistics Department at York University in Toronto has offered some food for thought.
York’s motto is “Create Positive Change.” It has taken pride in its 10,350 international students from 174 countries. The university advertises in its website: “Empowered by a welcoming and diverse community with a uniquely global perspective, we are preparing our students for their long-term career and personal success. Together we are making things right for our communities, our planet, and our future.”
Two weeks ago, however, the professor in question single-handedly tarnished the institute’s reputation of being culturally-accommodating. His world view has left much to be desired. He was pulled from his course after screenshots of him mocking a student trapped in the midst of the military coup in Myanmar had gone viral.
The student had asked for alternative arrangements for his mid-term assessment, as he might not be able to take an online examination due to an imminent internet blackout in the country. He tried to explain his situation further after he had been rejected by the professor. “Almost 200 protesters have been shot [until] now. The regime has decided to shut off all communications by tomorrow,” the student noted.
The professor remained unconvinced. The student then asked if he should be worried about missing the test. “Of course you should. The next time you miss something, it’s over,” the professor responded. “By the way, your remarks (both related to this course and to your home country) made me wonder how you understand reality,” he continued. “People don’t get shot for just protesting, but for a lot deeper reasons.”
Offended by the instructor’s apathy and arrogance, other students posted the exchange on social media triggering a public outcry. The story was covered by the international press, while the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation aired it on national TV. The university administration then churned out a statement for damage control, saying it had reached the student and would accept his request for an extension.
Since then the death toll has risen to about 587 including at least 46 children earlier this week according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. One would expect the academia to have learnt from the blunder to become more compassionate for their Myanmar students.
Yet, a local lecturer at the Education University of Hong Kong’s Linguistics and Modern Languages Department has recently committed the same mistake.
He has recently received a similar request for flexibility from a student in Myanmar. He told the student: “There are quite a number of students who have similar technical problem [sic] as you do (no one cannot guarantee there is no network problem). I am afraid we could not provide any special arrangement for any individual for this reason.”
“I would recommend you to wake up earlier and test the system before the official starting time,” he added. The lecturer was apparently more concerned about grading his class than the plight of his student.
The student, who denounced the lecturer’s response as lacking empathy, later tweeted: “#Burmese students located either in #Burma or overseas at this moment are under immense stress. Teachers should do better, especially when they’re trying to train students in pedagogy.” This is beyond embarrassing for a university whose mission is to nurture future educators.
In response to media enquiries, the university last Sunday conceded that it “deeply regrets the case.” It has contacted the student to tell him that flexible testing arrangements and other academic support were forthcoming. “The university reiterates that it attaches great importance to the well-being and safety of students. Faculty members should take into account every student’s specific circumstances while ensuring academic quality,” it said.
Ironically, the EdUHK Christian Faith and Development Centre organized a mission to the city of Lashio in Northeastern Myanmar as early as in the summer of 2016 soon after Aung San Suu Kyi had taken over the helm. A group of the university’s students volunteered to teach Chinese to primary students there. The teacher trainees at the university have undoubtedly outshone some of their instructors in terms of both sympathy and international-mindedness.
A decade ago, the Education Bureau launched a campaign without much success to reduce academic pressure on students. The promotion has long fizzled out but has popularized the slogan: “Learning: It’s more than scoring.”
The incident at the Education University has made evident the need to have the tagline updated specifically for lecturers to “Teaching: It’s more than scoring.”
(Andy Ho is a public affairs consultant. A former political editor of the South China Morning Post, he served as Information Coordinator at the Chief Executive’s Office of the HKSAR Government from 2006 to 2012.)
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